Edna O’Brien: Quotations

The O’Connor Girls’ [story]: ‘[A]t that moment I realised that by choosing his world I had said goodbye to my own and to those in it. By such choices we gradually become exiles, until at last we are quite alone.’ (Returning: A Collection of Tales, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1982, p.20.)

Mother Ireland: ‘I had thought of how it had warped me, and those around me, and their parents before them, all stooped by a variety of fears - fear of the Church, fear of gombeenism, fear of phantoms, fear of ridicule, fear of hunger, fear of annihilation, and fear of their own deeply ingrained aggression that can only strike a blow at one another, not having the innate authority to strike at those who are higher. Pity arose too, pity for a land so often denuded, pity for a people reluctant to admit that there is anything wrong. That is why we leave. Because we beg to differ. Because we dread the psychological choke.’ ‘Mother Ireland’, in Sewanee Review, 84 (1976), p.34; quoted in Stories by Contemporary Irish Women, ed. Daniel J. Casey & Linda M. Casey, Syracuse UP 1990, Introduction, p.4.)

The High Road (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1988), 180pp. [ded. ‘To my grandson Jack Redmond Gébler]. ‘I would grow to forget him, the him that I believed had broken my heart, but in my saner moments I recognised as being probably the last to partake with me at that fount of sensuality, and vertigo and earthly love. As with many a thing, we had embarked on it lightly, but it caught fire, escalated, went too far, to the marrow, rekindled hopes, hungers and fresh fears. Its end dribbled on, an end that consumed my middle years like a terrible wasting sickness so that I often wished to be quite old, thinking by then it would have faded completely, without a trace. At other moments, I wished that it had never happened because the incision was too much. Then again I wished for vengeance, retribution, which I gave vent to only in dreams. At that moment, standing in that world of lambent light I would have given anything to have my youth back again, for a year, a month, a week, an instant. His letters I had returned. They were in dove-grey flitters, like the pieces of a shredded jigsaw, on his desk maybe, or maybe dumped by a prudent secretary into his wastepaper basket. I would forget him a little each day and of course in forgetting him, kill that part of myself that for all its pain is the most sacred.’ (p.9.)

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Edna O’Brien, ‘It’s a Bad Time Out There for Emotion’, in New York Times (14 Feb. 1993)

Each of us looks for something different in a work of fiction. Some like the ordinary so as to feel reaffirmed and “at home,” and some seek the extraordinary, those daring distortions of realism that, by stunning verbal feats, hurtle the reader to fantastic latitudes. There is, however, just that element of strain when the conscious and not the unconscious is seen to be pulling the strings. Magic, as I see it, is simple eeriness, as in, say, “The Snow Queen,” when Gerda asks the forest raven where her friend has gone and he replies, “I’ll tell you ... but if only you understood raven speech I could tell you better”; or in the enchanted stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, in which New York is often fleetingly transformed into an exile’s dreamland; or in Kafka’s work, in which the ordinary glides inexorably into the gilded labyrinths of nightmare.

Some read to laugh, and let it be hoped some still read to cry, so that on finishing “Bleak House” they realize more fully than from any formal education the perversity, torpidity and mindless callousness of humankind. Some choose to enter the dark chambers of the psyche and reread Dostoyevsky, not so much to feel at home as to become guests to the criminal within themselves. Some like to sample the nausea of life, man’s fate reduced to the absurd by writers who curse God, like Samuel Beckett. That author once put it to me that my return to my native land, both in fiction and in person, was to imbibe another dose of disgust. I could not agree, no more than I would agree that absurdity is Beckett’s prime agenda. Rather, I would say it is a hectic delirium that inclines toward the profane but always ends on a note of liturgical grace.

Some look for more than one thing, and others like me look for everything. Reading “The Island” by Gustaw Herling of late, I felt an exhilaration that was like the exhilaration of that first moment of being touched and in some way shattered by great prose. I do not remember what that prose was, whether it was Joyce or Chekhov, but it was one or the other because my reading material was scant.

AT that time I owned two books - “The Steppe,” by Chekhov, and “Introducing James Joyce,” by T. S. Eliot. In those days I tended to identify with the young boy in “The Steppe,” separated from his mother and baffled by the grown-ups he was traveling with; but now boy, grown-ups and landscape all have their piercing effect, their fates joined inextricably, like the threads of a tapestry. Likewise with Joyce. I was at that time drawn to the chapter in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” describing the festive Christmas dinner and the (not unusual) Irish eruption when sex-cum-politics, in the person of Parnell, is raised and enmity let loose. Nowadays the “moon gray” wanderings of Anna Livia Plurabelle make my blood run cold. One rereading of a book digs the trench for the next and the next.

Rereading “The Steppe,” in its beautiful Everyman edition, I realized that what Chekhov does above all else is address the spiritual gnaw within the reader, and this is a consideration lamentably absent from most fiction today. Indeed, so does Joyce. That Jesuit-denouncing ventriloquist was as religious as they come, not with the religion of dogma or faith but of transubstantiation through words. While depicting the locale so precisely, or the hop of a kidney on a frying pan, he constantly and by a weird escalation of thought transfigures things so that a Paris street “rawly waking” is a Paris street and also one that no mortal will ever tread. He is realist, magic realist and spiritual genie - Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

So what I want most in fiction is the spiritual thrust, the moment or sequence of moments that shifts the boundaries to something larger, familiar and also startling, to the brush with God and nature or the absence of God and nature. Is this the result of a Catholic upbringing, the sensibility inherited from a race steeped in suffering? No. Every nation has suffered, yet her writers deal differently with that legacy. Brecht gave us a lasting heroine in Mother Courage, a creature who would sacrifice almost anything for cash, and while I admire her worldly pluck I would not make the journey with her frequently. There is a spiritual vacancy, a pragmatism, an absence of psychic shudder.

The Russians, the Poles and the Irish - or, to be precise, some Russians, Poles and Irish - seem to be the least ashamed of and the most atavistic at mapping out a landscape of suffering. In Gustaw Herling’s tales, for instance, the gravedigger is never absent from the carnival, and fatality presides like a lodestar. Some might call this masochism, but they would be mistaken. Joyce himself said that one has not lived unless one has conceived of life as a tragedy. Yet his prose has a fierce ebullience, and here we must make the distinction between what tragedy exacts and depression produces, depression spawning an industry of literary knitting.

When Chekhov, that most dissecting of writers, decides to devote 183 pages in “The Duel” to the history of a discontented man whose wife is dying, whose children are neglected and whose sexual urges cannot be met, it is not simply a little tale of infidelity; it is the gouging of the human heart, the moral prig as well as the moral dodger in us all, the insatiability of human nature and the little graph of each private fall.

There is a notion nowadays, meretricious as most notions are, that to write of such things is secondary and holds no brief in these apocalyptic times, when war, rape, murder and carnage fill our television screens and our newspapers and haunt our everyday lives to the extent that we send a donation or have a gruesome twist to our nightmares. The fact that one theme should cancel out the other is buncombe.

Loneliness, physical and metaphysical, is stamped on every face I see and surely not appeased by most film and television fare, with its kindergarten psychology, cretinous language and flurry of bullets flying about with the ennui of confetti. Chekhov or any other true artist would indeed write about the war, the rape, the carnage, were he part of it, as for instance Curzio Malaparte so convincingly did in “The Skin,” but the imperative must come from within. The inside is where everything, including the first murmur of language, gestates and waits to be born. Sometimes it waits forever.

Let me say that I think the excellence, rigorousness and lucidity of serious journalism surpasses most published fiction. But information is not transcendence and fact not always the touchstone of feeling. We hear a great deal (too much) about politically correct or incorrect material, but we hear nothing when that judgment is transferred to feeling. It has been sent underground, but like one of Kafka’s animals it scrapes its way up so that we come upon the work of Gustaw Herling or his fellow Pole Zbigniew Herbert, both of whom, despite untold obstacles, deliver psalms of passion and luminousness.

In the Rainer Werner Fassbinder movie “The Marriage of Maria Braun,” Maria tells a man in prison that it is a bad time out in the world for emotion. Why is this? When was it pronounced taboo? Who is to blame? Is it the overweening influence of the chic or a mix of the chic with the serious or the single-line mantra repetition of pop songs, in which sense is subsumed by sound? It is these things and many more, but I also think it is the prevailing ethos of literary criticism, which, especially in England, inclines to the scalping, where the clever bow to the clever, where the merest manifestation of feeling is pilloried and where consideration of language itself is zero. An indication of a country whose horizons have narrowed and with them any visionary or cultural largess. This is more insidious than it might seem. It breaks faith with innocence, refutes the collective imagination and inculcates a literary climate of smugness and provincialism. Within it lies the sick kernel of inferiority that leads only to robbery.

The point of literature is not or should not be a question of scoring. Faulkner does not vanquish Hemingway. Recently reading novels by those two robust and linguistic dazzlers Denis Johnson and Cormac McCarthy, I could not favor “Jesus’ Son” above “All the Pretty Horses.” And neither diminished the pleasure of reading “The Crystal Desert,” by David G. Campbell, a nonfiction work of flawless prose, in which the plants, rocks and glaciers of Antarctica are treated with the same particularity as the characters in a novel. All three are a feast.

LITERARY prizes are another bogy if you think that because Joyce never won the Nobel Prize whereas Yeats did, Yeats was a more important writer. They are indeed different in their sublimity, though I would argue that Joyce stands as the master builder of Irish writing and English writing in this century a droll aside on the vengeance that history wreaks. Like other truly great writers, Joyce was offhand, albeit totally confident, about his work, and he concluded that the money spent on a copy of “Ulysses” might provide about the same satisfaction as that spent on a pound of chops.

Chops or not, literature is the last banquet between minds. It is true, as Romain Rolland said, that literature is useless against reality while being a great consolation to the individual. But it is increasingly clear that the fate of the universe will come to depend more and more on individuals as the bungling of bureaucracy permeates every corner of our existence.

Books are the Grail for what is deepest, more mysterious and least expressible within ourselves. They are our soul’s skeleton. If we were to forget that, it would prefigure how false and feelingless we could become.

—Available online; accessed 21.09.2019.

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Down By the River (1996): Mary MacCarthy, aged 14, is raped by her widowed father, while they are fishing by the river. ‘[...] his figure falling through the air, an apotheosis descending down into a secrecy where there was only them, him and her. Darkness then, a weight of darkness except for one splotch of sunlight on his shoulder and all the differing motions, of water, of earth, of body, moving as one, on a windless day. Not a sound of a bird. An empty place, a place cut off from every place else and her body too, the knowing part of her body getting separated from what was happening down there. / It does not hurt if you say it does not hurt. It does not hurt if you are not you. Criss-cross waxen sheath, uncrissing, uncrossing. Mush. Wet, different wets. His essence, hers, their two essences one. O quenched and empty world. An eternity of time, then a shout, a chink of light, the ground easing back up, gorse prickles on her scalp and nothing ever the same again and a feeling as of having half-died. / Her pink canvas shoe had fallen into the water and she lifted it funnel-wise to free it of ooze. He looked at her, a probing look, looked through her as if she were parchment and then half-laughed. / “What would your mother say ... Dirty little thing.” / He crosses to the lake, wading through the thick lattice of bulrushes and she thinks he is washing now in the brackenish water, swabbing himself with the saucer leaf of the water-lily and that on him will linger the sweet lotus of that flower seemed to be uncut but when she brought her face up close to it, every piece had been severed, every severed piece, side by side, a wicked decoy. / Climbing the roped rickety gate that led from the bog road to the outer road she wobbles, grips a tassel of flowering dock and the coral seeds crushed to shreds she puts in her pocket. Only they will know. No one else will ever know. / Except that they will.’ (pp.5-6.) [The father later tries and fails to effect an abortion with a broom handle; p.106.]

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The Little Red Chairs (2015) - Publisher’s notice
One night, in the dead of winter, a mysterious stranger arrives in the small Irish town of Cloonoila. Broodingly handsome, worldly, and charismatic, Dr. Vladimir Dragan is a poet, a self-proclaimed holistic healer, and a welcome disruption to the monotony of village life. Before long, the beautiful black-haired Fidelma McBride falls under his spell and, defying the shackles of wedlock and convention, turns to him to cure her of her deepest pains. / Then, one morning, the illusion is abruptly shattered. While en route to pay tribute at Yeats’s grave, Dr. Vlad is arrested and revealed to be a notorious war criminal and mass murderer. The Cloonoila community is devastated by this revelation, and no one more than Fidelma, who is made to pay for her deviance and desire. In disgrace and utterly alone, she embarks on a journey that will bring both profound hardship and, ultimately, the prospect of redemption. [...]

Epigraph: On the 6th of April 2002, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by smipers and heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.

Little Red Chairs


Publisher’s extract; available at Hachette Open Books - online; accesse 30.08.2016 [click here to view in new window].
See also COPAC notice:
Ten years on from her last novel, Edna O’Brien reminds us why she is thought to be one of the great Irish writers of this and any generation. When a wanted war criminal from the Balkans, masquerading as a faith healer, settles in a small west coast Irish village, the community are in thrall. One woman, Fidelma McBride, falls under his spell and in this astonishing novel, Edna O’Brien charts the consequences of that fatal attraction. The Little Red Chairs is a story about love, the artifice of evil, and the terrible necessity of accountability in our shattered, damaged world. A narrative which dares to travel deep into the darkness has produced a book of enormous emotional intelligence and courage. Written with a fierce lyricism and sensibility, The Little Red Chairs dares to suggest there is a way back to redemption and hope when great evil is done. Almost six decades on from her debut, Edna O’Brien has produced what may be her masterpiece in the novel form.
[ COPAC is the Co-ordinated Online Public Access Catalogue of British and Irish Copyright Libraries. ]

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The “X Case” [abortion law in Ireland]: ‘I couldn’t believe it. I was in Ireland at the time when the debates were going on, and I saw a lot of those television debates and went to some meetings. I thought it was a step far back. No woman is overjoyed to have an abortion but if she must have it, she should not be made to feel like a criminal. It’s a serious and traumatic thing for a woman, and she needs support, not cudgels.’ On the law against provision of information on abortion: ‘also a potential form of murder [...] murder to the lives of women who are already born and trying to live their lives.’ Further: ‘I don’t think much for Pope John Paul II’s opinions. He may be a charming man but he’s a dogmatist. Woman’s lot is hard anywhere, but an Irishwoman’s lot is ten times harder.’ (Interview with Julia Carson, in Banned in Ireland: Censorship and the Irish Writer, ed. Carlson (Georgia UP 1990, p.77; quoted in Maireadh McGettigan, UU MA Diss. 2010.)

Mother Ireland (NY 1976): ‘Countries are either fathers or mothers, and engender the emotional bristle secretly reserved for either sire. [...] Ireland has always been Godridden.’ (Cited [with variants] in Amanda Graham, ‘The Lovely Substance of the Mother: Food, Gender and Nation in the work of Edna O’Brien’, Irish Studies Review, 15, Summer 1996, pp.16-20.)

Further: ‘Irish? In truth I would not want to be anything else. It is a state of mind as well as an actual country. It is being at odds with other nationalities, having quite different philosophy about pleasure, about punishment, about life, and about death. At least it does not leave one pusillanimous.’ (cited by John Hildebilde; Irish Studies E-List, Virginia, April 1998.) Further, speaks of ‘the psychological choke’ of Dublin culture; Mother Ireland, NY 1976, p.143.) Note that the epigraph is taken from Samuel Beckett’s novel Malone Dies [as infra].

Mother Ireland

When you say you’re Irish, you are instantly “allocated [...] the tendencies to be wild, wanton, drunk, superstitious, unreliable, backward, toadying and prone to fits, whereas you know that in fact a whole entourage of ghosts resides in you, ghosts with whom the inner rapport is as frequent, as perplexing, as defiant as with any of the living.”

O’Brien added that, when you’re Irish, “you know both sides and you are curiously uneasy with both. Uneasy with the outsiders who expect their version of you to manifest” and “even more uneasy with the natives who want you or anyone to lift them corporally out of their mire and desperation and bring them straight to heaven in a chariot.”

—Quoted in by Edward M. Gómez, interview-article Hypoallergic (26 Oct. 2013)- online.

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Vanishing Ireland (1987) : ‘It would need more than a fleet of mobile libraries to change Ireland. It would need a hundred Sigmund Freuds to unravel the Gordian knots of guilt and anger darkness and torturous sex.’ (p.21; quoted in Werner Huber, op. cit., 1993.)

A Scandalous Affair”: I thought that ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women’ in A Fanatic Heart: Selected Stories, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987, p. 265; quoted in Huber, op. cit., 1993.)

Born in Ireland: ‘Up to a short time ago I’d have said I was a writer who was just born in Ireland. But I know now, the way I write, the way I see things, my interest in story is very much the result of the race I come from’ (‘Committed to Mythology’, interview with Bolivar Le Franc, Books and Bookmen, Sept. 1968, p.72; quoted in Raymonde Popot, ‘Edna O’Brien’s Paradise Lost’, in Patrick Rafroidi & Maurice Harmon, eds., The Irish Novel in Our Time [Cahiers Irlandaises, 4-5] l’Université de Lille 1975-76, pp.255-85.)

Forbidden’, in New Yorker [Fiction] (20 March 2000), gives an account of a mother-daughter relationship recognisably like that of the author and her mother in outline though speaking of forgiveness as well as prohibition and dismissal. ‘She was the hub of the house. Her fingers and her fails smelled of food […] whereas her body smelled of drifting things, depending on whether she was happy or unhappy.’; ‘We lived for a time in such symbiosis that there might never have been a husband or other children, except there were.’ Speaks of ‘frugal’ life and the mother’s clothes, including silk from her days in Brooklyn; ‘[y]et at heart she was a countrywoman, and as she got older the fields, the bog, her dogs, and her fowl became more important to, were her companions once I had left.’ The narrative is chiefly concerned with a rift and the subsequent attempts of the mother to repair it: ‘I cannot remember when, exactly, the first moment of the breach came’; it was about writing and about the ethos of ‘illusion’ that come with it (a quotation from Voltaire on that subject sparking the quarrel). ‘Flings, youthful love affairs, were out of the question. I eloped with a man I had known for only six weeks. She hated him after merely seeing a photography, but she insisted on my marrying to give the seal of respectability to things, and there followed a bleak ceremony that she did not attend. With uncanny clairvoyance, she predicted the year, the day, even the hour of the marriage’s demise.’ Ten years later the mother resumes contact with an ‘ultimatum’ adjuring her not to have anything to do with men again after the failure of the marriage, which she had ‘predicted’ with ‘uncanny clairvoyance’: ‘She lamented by being young and therefore still in the way of temptation. She had reclaimed me.’ In the ensuing years the writer accumulates hundreds, perhaps a thousand, letters, mostly unread. ‘The one day, deluding myself that for my work I needed to revisit rooms and haunts that had passed into other hand, I lifted the little brass latch. I was like being plunged into the moiling seas of memory. Her letters were deeper, sadder than I had remembered, but what struck me most was their hunger. Here was a woman desperately trying to explain herself and tire the cord that had been summarily cut.’ The narrative ends in recounting the death of the mother and a final letter, broken off unfinished, in which she expressed herself shaken, having ‘quarrel with her son over her land’. The ending turns on a memory of a confession at a funeral on the part of her mother that she had once loved and been ultimately been offended by a ‘gentleman’, ‘dark, handsome and with a beautiful reserve’, in Brooklyn which serves as a counterpoint to the life and passions of the narrator-daughter. (pp.116-20.)

Self-exiled?: ‘I suppose most writers are exiled in their minds always - whether from family, parish or country - because writing by its very nature is an extremely isolating and reflective job. Even thought you are embroiled in the human stories, the work is done along in the crucible of the imagination.’ (Lee, Independent.

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Unlucky in love - O’Brien at eighty, interview with Gay Byrne (“The Meaning of Life”, RTE, 21 Feb. 2010): ‘I have not been lucky, certainly in the case of Ernest Gebler. I chose a judgmental or punishing figure; not obviously religious, in fact irreligious, but with the same strictures. / Some people call it masochism, I object to the word. I think religion had been so instilled into me that I did not think or feel that earthly love should be anything but in some form punishing. [...] I didn’t feel marriage should be a romp. Now I am 78 years of age and I haven’t met the man with whom my whole being, heart, soul and body would be miraculously entwined. I didn’t. My prayer has not been answered in that, nor is it likely to be.’ (For full report, see Lynne Kelleher, ‘Edna O’Brien laments her “punishing” marriage’, in The Sunday Times, 21 Feb. 2010 [online], or copy in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

The Country Girl (2012)
Fame and slaughter: ‘I thought of life’s many bounties, to have known the extremities of joy and sorrow, love, crossed love and unrequited love, success and failure, fame and slaughter, to have read in the newspapers that as a writer I was past my sell-by date, yet regardless, to go on writing and reading, to be lucky enough to live in these two intensities that have buttressed my whole life.’ (The Country Girl, 2012, q.p.; cited in COPAC - online.)
O’Brien to Gèbler: ‘He erupted, saying there was no such thing as a blue road, but I knew that there was. I had seen them, I had walked on one, the hot tar smearing the white canvas of my new shoes. Roads were every colour, blue, grey, gold, sandstone and carmine. He was categorical about it. It ws as if by saying it, I had defied some inalienable truth. He had to be right about everything and if he was crossed, a look of hatred came into his eyes, but to be crossed by me, a literary flibbertigibbet, was ridiclous, believing as he did that he owned me. /But in secret I clung to the blue road, while knowing that somewhere, in the distance, like a glacier, it would come between us. (The Country Girl, 2012, p.125; Harte, Reading the Contemporary Irish Novel (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell 2013, Introduction - available online.)

Constance Garnett”, in The Guardian (22 Jan. 2011) - “My Hero” [series]: ‘There is a postcard on my desk of an Édouard Vuillard painting called Two Women Under the Lamp. The room has a warm, welcoming glow, and I sometimes think which of the sympathetic, scholarly women I would like to sit with there. Invariably, I choose Constance Garnett. / Garnett translated 73 volumes of Russian literature, which included Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Herzen and many others, but translating Chekhov gave her more pleasure than any other work. Chance put her on the life-long path for which she was suited. In 1892, with her fiancé Edward Garnett, she went to Bedford Park to meet Volkhovsky, a& revolutionary who had escaped from Russia and was editing an émigré journal called Free Russia. His pen name was Stepniak - a man of the steppe. Constance fell “not a little in love with him” and, providing her with a grammar and dictionary, he suggested she translate “those splendid Russians”. It was a prodigious undertaking for a Victorian Englishwoman who had been a librarian in the East End of London. Her husband helped her with publication, ensuring that the editions be both inexpensive and available to young people. In time they lived separately; but as might a Russian heroine, she wrote to Edward: “Keep a warm heart to me - independence doesn’t go very far.” / In his life of her, her grandson Richard Garnett describes her, alone in her stone house in Kent, translating and tending her garden; she loved plants almost as much as she loved language. Her life was frugal, her dresses “unambitious”, her one seeming luxury a Valor stove with two paraffin wicks, which her adored son, David Garnett, had bought for her. I would like to go to that stone house and have Constance speak every line of Chekhov’s and then her own translation, line by line, night by night, “sous la lampe”’. (The Guardian - online; accessed 15.11.2016.)

Edna O’Brien: ‘Country Girl: On a Lifetime of Lit., Loneliness and Love’, NPR Radio Interview (25 April 2013)

Interview Highlights

On a childhood spent writing in the fields of Ireland’s County Clare
[I wrote] fanciful little things ... foolish things. And I did write a little novel when I was about 8. It had all the elements of Gothic Victorian fiction. Not that I had any knowledge of Gothic Victorian fiction, because there were no books in our village ... and there was no library. There were prayer books, and there were cookery books. Even at that young age, I knew that there was a great suspicion on my mother’s part about writing. My mother, who was a very gifted woman, hated and mistrusted the written word. It was as if she felt it was redolent of sin. So I hid the little book in a trunk. That was my first fling into fiction.

On words as generators of magic
There was that search in me for ... words, as if these words that I would, with difficulty, find, were the generators of some kind of magic. Or transformation from the dull world, as I might call it, to the ascendant world.

Edna O’Brien
It might seem very old-fashioned, but I think the family nexus plays a strong part in it. ... How do we know words? How do we accumulate words? Are they there in us before we know them? There was that search in me for the words — for words, as if these words that I would, with difficulty, find, were the generators of some kind of magic. Or transformation from the dull world, as I might call it, to the ascendant world. But I also have to say, the dull world — mother, father, brother, sisters, workmen, donkeys — that was the material. So I was very lucky to grow up in a small village, a small hamlet, in which one was able to observe, secretly, everything going on around one. Even just the way people sat at Mass ... the different way [women] prayed, the things they said or refused to say or kept from saying to each other. So the place was full of stories. They were small stories, but they were stories.

On two types of relationships with men
Men are either lovers or brothers for me. The brothers are the ones I actually prefer, I like more, and I can talk to. The lovers are ... the ones I’m more afraid of, but fall in love with. The case of [actor] Robert Mitchum, it was a brief encounter, in the best sense of the word — not like the film Brief Encounter. I met him at a very grand party of a film producer, and Robert Mitchum, as such, swept me off my feet. But he was far too proud and actually mesmeric a man to throw himself at anyone.
 [We] did have one, as I said in the book, one night at my house, and it had all the elements of a ballad. And from that you can read anything you wish, as can any reader.

On becoming the subject of an improvised Paul McCartney song
He sang to [my children] Carlo and Sasha, who had gone to sleep. ... I was at a party of Kenneth and Kathleen Tynan and I had to leave because the baby sitter was leaving at 9 o’clock. And Paul McCartney was coming in and he said, ‘You can’t go. I haven’t talked to you.’ I said, ‘I have to go, I have to go. I have to get the baby sitter, et cetera.’ And anyhow, the baby sitter — Beth was her name — saw him and almost swooned. And then he said, ‘Where are the [children]?’ And they were in bed. And there was an old, not to say secondhand — fifth-hand — guitar there. So he picked up the guitar, and Paul McCartney made up this little song about me.

On attending parties with the likes of Sean Connery, Roger Vadim, Jane Fonda and Judy Garland, and feeling lonely
I think by nature I am lonely, in that I wouldn’t be a writer if I were not lonely. I think most writers [are], if you read their letters and sometimes read some of their lives. I’m not recommending it, but I know one has to be — to remain writing, not just to start as a writer, to remain faithful to it — one has to live so much of one’s life alone. And reflective. Certain people, I think, are kind of born lonely. I can tell lonely people when I see them, and I’m very often drawn to them, because I feel that they might have some secret to tell me.

On taking LSD prescribed by the psychiatrist R.D. Laing
That was what you’d call a trip. I had a very drastic and, for a time, irretrievable trip. I was glad I went to him, but I didn’t really realize that the LSD would have such a drastic, frightening and lengthy effect upon me. Because it did. It opened me — I think my writing got deeper and in some instances, I think more scarifying, after it. But the trip seemed to me to be forever. It was probably about 12 hours in itself, but the aftermath was for many months, and even years, after that.

On bringing people alive in Country Girl
The person who comes most alive is my mother. She had the deepest effect on me. She, to a great extent, formed me to be what I am. She instilled into me certainly a conscience and a discipline ... that was in contrast to my inner wild self that didn’t want these restrictions, if you know what I mean. And by her not wanting me to be a writer, it played some part in my determination to be a writer.

Available online; accessed 20.09.2019.

‘James Joyce’s Odyssey: The labors of Ulysses’, in “A Critic at Large” [ser,] (The New Yorker, 7 June 1999)

At the age of twenty, as the impecunious James Joyce prepared to leave Dublin in order “to forge the conscience of his race,” he wrote blisteringly to Lady Gregory, the doyenne of Irish literary society, “I have found no man yet with a faith like mine.” That faith has since been vindicated, but his insistence that he did not want to be a “literary Jesus Christ” was sorely tried. Joyce’s journey as a writer was one of martyrdom: the odium meted out to each of his works was strenuous, but it was Ulysses that met with the most vituperative attacks. It was seen as technically monstrous, antihumanist, unclean, and excrementous. The doings, the sayings, the veniality, the music, the cadences of his Dubliners are all there, as is the city itself, but his real crime in that strife of tongues was to break the sexual taboos of holy Ireland, Victorian England, and puritanical America.

[...] The Joyce I loved and learned from formerly has metamorphosed into an even more radical, more elusive, more labyrinthine writer than when I first read him or later read Richard Ellmann’s great biography of him. If the seven stages of man, as defined by Shakespeare’s melancholy Jaques, pertain, then Joyce is the author to conduct each one of us through our successive reading lives.

Joyce left Ireland - that “scullery maid of Christendom” - in 1904, to escape its confiningness, and went with his sweetheart, Nora Barnacle, to teach in a Berlitz school on the Adriatic coast, first in Pola, and then in Trieste. Being of a restless disposition, he soon tired of Trieste, with its drab provincials and a bora wind that turned men with ruddy complexions, like his, into butter. Rome, the Eternal City, suited his destiny, and, moreover, his hero Ibsen had wintered there. He found a job in a bank writing letters to foreign customers for nine hours a day. [...] It was in Rome, in 1906, that he first conceived of Ulysses - “that little epic of the Irish and Hebrew races.” From there, he voiced his literary manifesto in a postcard to his brother, Stanislaus. He wrote that if he were to put a bucket down into his own soul’s sexual department he would haul up the muddied waters of Arthur Griffith, the leader of Sinn Fein; Shelley; Ibsen; St. Aloysius; and Renan, the biographer of Christ. In short, cerebral sexuality and bodily fervor were universal: there was no such thing as a pure man or a pure woman. Joyce was about to do through words what Freud, whom he reviled, was attempting to do with highly strung patients in a cultivated but stifling Vienna.

See full-text copy in RICORSO Library > Criticism > Major Authors :gt; James Joyce - Edna O’Brien - in this frame or as attached.

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Lara Marlowe, interview with Edna O’Brien on staging of James Joyce’s Women, in The Irish Times (17 Sept. 2022)

The bond between James and Nora, a hotel chambermaid from Galway who lived in poverty and exile for him but never read his books, remains a mysterious alchemy of sexual attraction and almost metaphysical mutual dependence. In James & Nora, A Portrait of a Marriage, O’Brien called it “forever mingling the genitalia and the transubstantial”.

Joyce slept with Nora’s glove under his pillow and sent her magnificent love letters. “I was his wild flower of the rain-drenched hedges, made beautiful by moonlight, his soul trembling beside mine ... I was the other half of Ireland,” she recalls.

“Jim is my child ... Jim is my life,” Nora says in the play. “I learned to roll Turkish cigarettes to keep hunger at bay. If I gave him a stern look, he would put a note under the teapot begging forgiveness”.

Joyce said that he wanted to be a woman. “He called himself ‘a womanly man’,” O’Brien says. She believes that his desire to experience womanhood was part of what attracted him to Nora. “His overwhelming impulse towards Nora Barnacle was to do with the possessing of her womanness, body and soul, her thinking, her sexuality. He wanted to absorb every bit of her. I don’t think even she understood the mystery and astonishment of her power over him.”

Joyce was prone to getting “maggoty drunk”, as his brother Stanislaus put it. “When he had a second bottle, he wanted a third bottle. And Nora tried to stop him,” O’Brien says. She quotes Charmian, Cleopatra’s lady in waiting in Shakespeare. “Cross him in nothing” was Nora’s attitude.

“Nora could stand up to him about whether they would buy a carpet when they got into the money, but she never contradicted his deeper intent,” O’Brien says. “She read some proof pages of Ulysses and called them ein schwein, a pig”. When the first two copies of Ulysses reached Paris on the train from Dijon, Joyce gave one to Nora as a gift. “Nora proceeded to sell it, half in jest, to his friend Arthur Power. Nora was funny. She was spry and, in a sense, she stood up to him. She didn’t kneel at his feet or call him the great master or say, ‘Have you read my husband’s masterpiece?’ she was much too shrewd for that.”


“Joyce from the very start, as is often the case with fathers, favoured his daughter,” O’Brien explains. “As years went on, his love and daily habits, his affections for Nora, were certainly sexually dampened or lessened. That’s no surprise to anyone, biologically, and this budding, dancing, gifted creature Lucia entered more into his life and thinking. Nora was jealous.”

O’Brien categorically rejects rumours of incest between Joyce and Lucia. “B*****ks!” she exclaims. “Do you know why I say that with such certainty? He loved and revered her too much. He revered his daughter. He revered her mind. He thought she was part of his mind, which she was, in a sense”.

Note: The interview article gives details of the play and the difficulties involved in its composition; [available online; acessed 20.-9.2022]

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